Date of Degree

2-2017

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor(s)

Katherine Manthorne

Subject Categories

American Material Culture | American Popular Culture | American Studies | History

Keywords

material culture, consumer culture, department stores, New York, art venues, fashion, mass communications, 19th century, print culture, A.T. Stewart

Abstract

Soft spoken, short of stature, his sleepy blue eyes gazing wistfully upon the world around him, the Irish émigré A. T. Stewart hardly looked like a titan of business. But by 1863, he’d built two architecturally significant department stores, he was one of the leading importers, manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers in this country, and he had begun to collect significant works of art, which today have pride of place in art museums around the world.

Like many wealthy nineteenth century New Yorkers, Stewart amassed his wealth through commerce. However, Stewart was not just a merchant. As a leader in apparel and home furnishings, Stewart made business and personal decisions which had a direct influence on the way New Yorkers and those across the country looked and furnished their homes, not only reflecting America’s taste but also shaping it. He was instrumental in shaping New York’s built environment, in establishing one of the first great hetero-social workforces and a national mail order service. He harnessed the media, developing and promoting one of American fashion’s first “brand” names and fostered a frenzy in carpet buying, that relied heavily on European imports, yet became distinctly American. Stewart’s achievements benefitted by both artistic traditions and industrialization, as well as overseas connections, and a canny sense of what Americans wanted and how to get it to them.

The purpose of this paper is twofold: to show the impact of Stewart on American material and visual culture in the context of immense cultural change and growth across the nation, and to credit Alexander Turney Stewart as one of the most prominent forces in what can only be termed an early nineteenth-century consumer revolution in the United States.

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